My Day at Meenakshi Amman Temple

For a prequel to this article, please go here.

In 1985 my father died. Shortly afterward, immersed in the kinds of thoughts that follow a parent’s death, I went to India as a tourist. Before I left I asked my girlfriend for advice about which places to visit, since she had been to India a few years earlier. Without hesitation she replied, “Meenakshi Temple in Madurai.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it will be one of the most remarkable things you’ll ever see.” She chuckled at her non-answer — she had an endearing way of being amused by ordinary things — and went on to explain that the temple was old and huge and filled with thousands of people. “You’ll see the kind of deep religious feeling that existed in Europe during the Middle Ages. That kind of conviction vanished from the West hundreds of years ago, but you can still see it in India. Trust me, it will be one of the most amazing things you’ll ever experience.”

Neither my girlfriend or I were interested in Hinduism. In retrospect it seems strange that she herself had gone to Meenakshi Temple. It wasn’t a common destination for Western tourists at that time.

A few weeks later a rickshaw driver dropped me off outside the gate of Meenakshi Temple. I walked inside and quickly slipped into an unusual state of consciousness. I later told friends that I felt like I was on drugs.

My memory of the next six hours is distorted and patchy. As I look now at photos and maps of the temple I see that it has outdoor terraces and a pond but I don’t remember them. In my memory the entire temple was enclosed and dark like an artificial cave of ancient stone. Throngs of people moved slowly through the shadowy halls, their eyes flashing white in the darkness.

Shrines and alcoves opened off the main corridors, their entrances protected by metal grates and signs that said “Hindus only past this point” or words to that effect. At one shrine a long line of people waited to enter.   I was taller than almost everyone else and could look over their heads through the doorway.  Inside was a group of priests, naked to the waist and glistening with sweat, performing a ceremony. Light from their fires, shining on their gold utensils and red and orange flowers, was visible through the doorway. Disregarding the sign, I joined the line.

This was out of character for me. I usually respect people’s customs when I travel in foreign countries, especially religious customs. Moreover I’m shy and fearful of being embarrassed, and I avoid situations where I’m likely to be socially awkward. Everyone could see or at least presume that I wasn’t a Hindu; I looked very different from everybody else there.

I didn’t think about any of this.  My body seemed to be acting on its own.

Nobody said a word to me. I thought that nobody even looked at me, although now as I examine the photos I took that day, I see people staring at me.

The line moved forward until I found myself in front of a priest who was, I think, pouring something over a lingam. The priests treated me like everyone else but I don’t remember what they did. I think one of them put vibhuti on my forehead, and I think I was conscious of it being there for hours afterward while I walked around the dark cavernous spaces, but my memory of that day is so fragmented and distorted that I don’t really know.

After that I wandered around the temple for hours. My memories are fragmentary. I remember standing in a room with many small sculptures. Maybe this was the room with the statues of the 63 Tamil saints that Ramana mentions. Of course I had never heard of Ramana then.  I also remember climbing the south gopuram or gate tower of the temple.  This gopuram is the one that’s visible from Ramana’s house.  A tiny stairway, so small that it seemed more like a tunnel than a stairway, zigzagged up to the roof 170 feet above the ground. I’ve been told that visitors are no longer allowed up there because it’s too dangerous. There was no guard rail, the roof was very narrow, and the surface sloped so rain and possibly tourists would slide off easily. There were so many foolhardy young men up there, including me, that we were in danger of accidentally knocking each other off.

About a year after I wrote this article, I remembered that after I got back to the hotel, I cancelled my flight out of Madurai so I could remain in town a second day and return to the temple. It was on that second day that I climbed to the roof. This article should have been named “My Two Days at Meenakshi Amman Temple.”

Here are some photos I took inside the temple.

7 thoughts to “My Day at Meenakshi Amman Temple”

  1. Freddie, this experience you tell about only comes to a truly innocent person, one whose heart opens without its owner’s notice allowing the stranger to enter the inner sanctum, the womb chamber.

  2. Maybe you’re right, Charlie, but many years later I asked the Goddess why she gave me that experience and she said, “Because you wanted it.”

    I think that’s all it was. Desires for holy things are self-fulfilling. For everyone.

    I guess I was innocent in the sense that I didn’t know I wanted it. Decades later, during that conversation with the Goddess, I didn’t believe her because I didn’t remember wanting such things in 1985. To convince me that it was true she put me back into the state of mind that I was in when I entered her temple that day in 1985. And I saw that she was right. When she restored that young man’s state of mind to me, I recognized and remembered it. On that day in 1985 I didn’t believe in God and I didn’t know any concepts related to spirituality but I yearned for something deep. Something profound and ultimate. Something holy, although I didn’t know that’s what it was. That’s why it happened. Or so she said and showed me.

  3. A very heartening experience Freddie. I think probably because I am from India and going to the temples are a very common thing for us it’s easy to miss the wonderful holy feeling that you experienced at Meenakshi temple.

  4. What Self desires/urges is deep, profound and is concealed most of the time. Concealed from “mind”, because it is something beyond mind. Mind will end up looking for logical/rational explanation for such things, and there would be none to satisfy mind. Urge to go to certain places, meet certain people, experiencing something like you did in this Temple, are all initiated and completed through Self(Atma/Soul) only. There are times in life when “Self” takes the control of one’s life and start driving it. And at other times in life, “mind” becomes a roadblock to the natural urges of Self. Or in other words we can say “mind” becomes the Primary Driver of life, through “desires”. Mind’s control over Life is not unnatural, it is suppose to be that way for however long it is needed, as we all are suppose to do some self-research and learn some lessons before earning PhD (Self Realization) which comes from unfulfilled desires, states of love and pain most of the time.

  5. Wonderful. Thank you so very much for sharing these memories.
    I shall be visiting this temple soon. The last time I visited south India was in 1985 and I too had an experience at a temple, I was taken into a dark inner sanctum and shown an ancient gnarled tree by a priest. Great stuff.

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